Sears has performed horribly since acquired by Fast Eddie Lampert's KMart in 2005. Revenues are down 25%, same store sales have declined persistently, store margins have eroded and the company has recently taken to reporting losses. There really hasn't been any good news for Sears since the acquisition.
Bloomberg Businessweek made a frontal assault on CEO Edward Lampert's leadership at Sears this week. Over several pages the article details how a "free market" organization installed by Mr. Lampert led to rampant internal warfare and an inability for the company to move forward effectively with programs to improve sales or profits. Meanwhile customer satisfaction has declined, and formerly valuable brands such as Kenmore and Craftsman have become industry also-rans.
Because the Lampert controlled hedge fund ESL Investments is the largest investor in Sears, Mr. Lampert has no risk of being fired. Even if Nobel winner Paul Krugman blasts away at him. But, if performance has been so bad – for so long – why does the embattled Mr. Lampert continue to lead in the same way? Why doesn't he "fire" himself?
By all accounts Mr. Lampert is a very smart man. Yale summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, he was a protege of former Treasury Secretay Robert Rubin at Goldman Sach before convincing billionaire Richard Rainwater to fund his start-up hedge fund – and quickly make himself the wealthiest citizen in Connecticut.
If the problems at Sears are so obvious to investors, industry analysts, economics professors, management gurus and journalists why doesn't he simply change?
Mr. Lampert, largely because of his success, is a victim of BIAS. Deep within his decision making are his closely held Beliefs, Interpretations, Assumptions and Strategies. These were created during his formative years in college and business. This BIAS was part of what drove his early success in Goldman, and ESL. This BIAS is now part of his success formula – an entire set of deeply held convictions about what works, and what doesn't, that are not addressed, discussed or even considered when Mr. Lampert and his team grind away daily trying to "fix" declining Sears Holdings.
This BIAS is so strong that not even failure challenges them. Mr. Lampert believes there is deep value in conventional retail, and real estate. He believes strongly in using "free market competition" to allocate resources. He believes in himself, and he believes he is adding value, even if nobody else can see it.
Mr. Lampert assumes that if he allows his managers to fight for resources, the best programs will reach the top (him) for resourcing. He assumes that the historical value in Sears and its house brands will remain, and he merely needs to unleash that value to a free market system for it to be captured. He assumes that because revenues remain around $35B Sears is not irrelevant to the retail landscape, and the company will be revitalized if just the right ideas bubble up from management.
Mr. Lampert inteprets the results very different from analysts. Where outsiders complain about revenue reductions overall and same store, he interprets this as an acceptable part of streamlining. When outsiders say that store closings and reduced labor hurt the brand, he interprets this as value-added cost savings. When losses appear as a result of downsizing he interprets this as short-term accounting that will not matter long-term. While most investors and analysts fret about the overall decline in sales and brands Mr. Lampert interprets growing sales of a small integrated retail program as a success that can turn around the sinking behemoth.
Mr. Lampert's strategy is to identify "deep value" and then tenaciously cut costs, including micro-managing senior staff with daily calls. He believes this worked for Warren Buffett, so he believes it will continue to be a successful strategy. Whether such deep value continues to exist – especially in conventional retail – can be challenged by outsiders (don't forget Buffett lost money on Pier 1,) but it is part of his core strategy and will not be challenged. Whether cost cutting does more harm than good is an unchallenged strategy. Whether micro-managing staff eats up precious resources and leads to unproductive behavior is a leadership strategy that will not change. Hiring younger employees, who resemble Mr. Lampert in quick thinking and intellect (if not industry knowledge or proven leadership skills) is a strategy that will be applied even as the revolving door at headquarters spins.
The retail market has changed dramatically, and incredibly quickly. Advances in internet shopping, technology for on-line shopping (from mobile devices to mobile payments) and rapid delivery have forever altered the economics of retailing. Customer ease of showrooming, and desire to shop remotely means conventional retail has shrunk, and will continue to shrink for several years. This means the real challenge for Sears is not to be a better Sears as it was in 2000 — but to become something very different that can compete with both WalMart and Amazon – and consumer goods manufacturers like GE (appliances) and Exide (car batteries.)
There is no doubt Mr. Lampert is a very smart person. He has made a fortune. But, he and Sears are a victim of his BIAS. Poor results, bad magazine articles and even customer complaints are no match for the BIAS so firmly underlying early success. Even though the market has changed, Mr. Lampert's BIAS has him (and his company) in internal turmoil, year after year, even though long ago outsiders gave up on expecting a better result.
Even if Sears Holdings someday finds itself in bankruptcy court, expect Mr. Lampert to interpret this as something other than a failure – as he defends his BIAS better than he defends its shareholders, employees, suppliers and customers.
What is your BIAS? Are you managing for the needs of changing markets, or working hard to defend doing more of what worked in a bygone era? As a leader, are you targeting the future, or trying to recapture the past? Have market shifts made your beliefs outdated, your interpretations of what happens around you faulty, your assumptions inaccurate and your strategies hurting results? If any of this is true, it may be time you address (and change) your BIAS, rather than continuing to invest in more of the same. Or you may well end up like Sears.